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Psychological First Aid: Crisis Communication as Psychoenergonomics

I thought that the most interesting of the five secrets of crisis communication is the last one, about how people react in a pandemic. In the introduction, the site speaks of the need to administer "psychological first aid" (described as a "new concept") to help in managing panic in severe pandemics. I was surprised to find out that knee-jerk reactions are good and that they want people to overreact. This is better than denial which, though it protects us from the potentially harmful effects of panic, causes people to avoid taking the actions they need to ultimately protect themselves. Therefore, people must be "seduced" out of denial by various strategies:
  • legitimize fear: acknowledge fear: don't say "don't be afraid" but "of course you're afraid. I am too, but we'll get through this together"
  • find things to do: this helps us bear our fear better
  • give people ways to make decisions: again, a form of empowerment that helps with bearing fears
  • love: thinking of the ones we love can help us bear our fear better: we can bear fear on behalf of the ones we love vs. ourselves...
  • hate: a controversial one, but sometimes it helps to have a target for hatred, which channels emotions and helps us bear the fear better (rather than slipping in to denial)
Fear, it is said, "is the solution, not a problem."

I found this surprising, because in my studies of psychology, I thought our goal was to move people out of fear, to channel the energy in their brain from the amygdala (the fear center) toward the pre-frontal lobes, the site of rationality. Sometimes fear is healthy, though, and in a pandemic, this is the case: it triggers survivalist instincts and moves us to actions that will help get us through the problem.

I was mostly struck by the sites' instruction (to future journalists, the site being the Nieman Foundation for Journalism at Harvard) for making people afraid, the goal being to "guide the adjustment reaction" and get people to overreact (so that they avoid the dangerous psychological attitude of denial). I would call this "psychoenergonomics," a concept I created to express the idea of managing energy (energy + nomos, which means "management" in the original Greek) in the mind ('psyche"). I thought of it as applying to an individual, but the Nieman Guide suggests that journalists have the power to manage the fears of the ma****. It speaks of the responsibilities of journalists to inform the public in a way that will help them do the next right thing, which can be difficult when people are in denial.

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Comment by Turil Cronburg on May 9, 2010 at 7:57pm
By expressing fear, one does indeed move the energy out, literally. The expression of the fear is "putting it out there", and as long as you aim that expression in a direction that can absorb it safely (art, a sound proof room, a pillow... :-) then everything is cool, and the brain can go back to a more normal state of more balanced thinking.

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